Medicine Is War

The Martial Metaphor in Victorian Literature and Culture

By Lorenzo Servitje

Subjects: Nineteenth-century Studies, Literary Criticism, Literary History, English Literature, British Studies
Series: SUNY series, Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century
Paperback : 9781438481685, 352 pages, July 2021
Hardcover : 9781438481678, 352 pages, February 2021

Alternative formats available from:

Table of contents




1. Denaturing the Emergent Martial Metaphor in Mary Shelley's The Last Man

2. Charles Kingsley Meets Cholera Face-to-Face


3. Military Pasts and Medical Futures in Bram Stoker's Dracula

4. Arthur Conan Doyle's Imperial Armamentarium

5. Modernist Refractions of Tropical Medicine in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness

Collateral Damage: An Afterword

Addendum: A Surge of Epilogics in the Midst of the War against COVID-19


Examines how literature mediated a convergence of militarism and medicine in Victorian culture that continues into the present via a widespread martial metaphor.


Medicine is most often understood through the metaphor of war. We encounter phrases such as "the war against the coronavirus," "the front lines of the Ebola crisis," "a new weapon against antibiotic resistance," or "the immune system fights cancer" without considering their assumptions, implications, and history. But there is nothing natural about this language. It does not have to be, nor has it always been, the way to understand the relationship between humans and disease.

Medicine Is War shows how this "martial metaphor" was popularized throughout the nineteenth century. Drawing on the works of Mary Shelley, Charles Kingsley, Bram Stoker, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Joseph Conrad, Lorenzo Servitje examines how literary form reflected, reinforced, and critiqued the convergence of militarism and medicine in Victorian culture. He considers how, in migrating from military medicine to the civilian sphere, this metaphor responded to the developments and dangers of modernity: urbanization, industrialization, government intervention, imperial contact, crime, changing gender relations, and the relationship between the one and the many. While cultural and literary scholars have attributed the metaphor to late nineteenth-century germ theory or immunology, this book offers a new, more expansive history stretching from the metaphor's roots in early nineteenth-century militarism to its consolidation during the rise of early twentieth-century pharmacology. In so doing, Servitje establishes literature's pivotal role in shaping what war has made thinkable and actionable under medicine's increasing jurisdiction in our lives. Medicine Is War reveals how, in our own moment, the metaphor remains conducive to harming as much as healing, to control as much as empowerment.

Lorenzo Servitje is Assistant Professor of Literature and Medicine at Lehigh University. He has published several books, including Syphilis and Subjectivity: From the Victorians to the Present (coedited with Kari Nixon); Endemic: Essays in Contagion Theory (coedited with Kari Nixon); and The Walking Med: Zombies and the Medical Image (coedited with Sherryl Vint).


"…Servitje has explored a theme that medical historians have largely ignored, mining a range of medical sources and reading them in new ways." — Bulletin of the History of Medicine

"This is an exceedingly timely work, as the pandemic rages around us, and the language of war is heard from all sides. Servitje challenges the seemingly inevitable correlation of medicine and military extermination, and shows how this mode of perception only became entrenched within our culture and language during the nineteenth century. In wonderfully insightful readings of works, from Mary Shelley's The Last Man to Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Servitje explores how literary texts worked both to challenge and promote the entangled relations of medical science and the military in nineteenth-century culture." — Sally Shuttleworth, University of Oxford

"Medicine Is War is a provocative and beautifully-written account of the emergence, popularization, and entanglement of military metaphors in medicine, public health, and popular culture. Servitje accomplishes what few scholars of the Victorian period have been able to do; connect in deep and meaningful ways cultural literary forms with medical theory and social context. Scholars have long acknowledged the ways that military metaphors have shaped modernity, but Medicine Is War provides the definitive account of how we should frame and conceptualize the 'fight,' 'war,' and 'battle' against disease. Historians and literary scholars, and also medical and public health practitioners, will find relevance in this ground-breaking work." — Jacob Steere-Williams, College of Charleston and author of The Filth Disease: Typhoid Fever and the Practices of Epidemiology in Victorian England